Comment & Analysis
Jan 27, 2016

In Identifying Ways to Determine Potential in the Leaving Cert, Debate and Scrutiny are Welcome

Professor Patrick Geoghegan, project sponsor of the Trinity Admissions Feasibility Study, defends the need for alternative measures of potential.

Patrick GeogheganOp-ed contributor

Fifteen months ago I ended an article in The Irish Times defending the Trinity Admissions Feasibility Study with the sentence: “The dinosaurs also believed that they were fine and that nothing needed to be changed. But they still became extinct.” It is probably the only part of the project that I regret. The trouble with catchy sentences is that they can make an immediate impact as a rhetorical device, providing a memorable rebuttal of opposing arguments, but they can also leave a lasting wound. It was not even a historically accurate point – dinosaurs were incapable of rationalising whether they were fine or not or whether things needed to be changed. They just continued with what they were doing until the very end. But it conjured up a memorable image of the imperative to evolve and change, it resonated with people, and it was funny.

The lines have never been forgotten. About a week later, the chief critic of the study, John McAvoy, was on the radio, and made a point of emphasising that he was no dinosaur. The term “dinosaur” has been a feature in his responses. In his op-ed piece in this paper before Christmas, he made a point of clarifying that “I am not a dinosaur trying to impede progress”. Although I have never met McAvoy, the former general manager of the CAO, I know that he is an intelligent, well-meaning and honourable man, who cares passionately about the workings of our admissions systems nationally, especially after giving his life to administering the current system. We need more people like him. I disagree fundamentally with his analysis of the points system (essentially that it is a fair and good system and that nothing needs to be changed), but I admire his willingness to engage with our reports, our data and our arguments. Without him, this would not be valuable work, because it would not have the critical peer-review that is required for any rigorous academic study.

We have made changes each year, refining the system each time so that it works more efficiently.


We need that debate. The project has received much praise from various groups: student, teacher and parent bodies, commentators in the media, as well as a range of politicians, business leaders and educationalists both nationally and internationally. But this is a study and it demands scrutiny. That is why we are delighted that this year our colleagues in the Cultures, Academic Values and Education Research Centre have begun a rigorous analysis of the data we have been gathering and will explore the relative value of the different scales – the Relative Performance Ranking and the personal statements – and will attempt a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the project so far.

In September 2016, we will admit 25 more students through the Trinity Admissions Feasibility Study, bringing the total number in College to 75, so this is an exciting new phase of research. We have made changes each year, refining the system each time so that it works more efficiently. This year the personal statement is still a requirement, as we want students to reflect on what they want to do and why and show us their analytical ability but as a qualifier rather than a determining factor. The most important thing will be how each candidate performs relative to other students in their school in the Leaving Cert.

This is a measure that is accepted and understood internationally by employers as well as by educationalists. Before Christmas there was a seminar given in the House of Commons by Angus Knowles-Cutter, Vice Chairman of Deloitte in the UK and a senior partner, and he explained that they were “looking for people who are going to strive and perform, and perform well under their relative circumstances”. He explained that Deloitte prefer to hire students with all Bs from a school where that constitutes an excellent performance, rather than a student with all As from a school where that was the average. In other words, they look at relative performance.

We believe in potential because we do not believe destiny is fixed.

In Trinity, we also want students who will strive and perform. We believe in potential because we do not believe destiny is fixed. At the heart of the clash of ideas is this fundamental principle. I do not believe that a student with 500 points is automatically a better choice for a course than a student with 450 points. Other factors need to be considered: who has the genuine passion for the course, and who picked it half-heartedly? Who is good at rote-learning, and who is better at independent and critical thinking? Who excelled in school, performing ahead of all their classmates, and who was average in a school where every benefit was provided to help maximize points? Leaving Cert results show academic performance at a fixed point in time. Its value is important but limited. The value of identifying potential is limitless.

The people on the planet Krypton also believed that they were fine and that nothing needed to be changed. We all know how that turned out.

Prof Patrick Geoghegan is the Project Sponsor of the Trinity Admissions Feasibility Study.

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